An engineer who ran up against council planners when he started a "state-of-the-art" barn conversion without permission has had his plans approved.

Malcolm Wass wanted to convert a lambing shed into a home for his daughter and her disabled partner, with a new basement, three ponds, footpath, access road, ground source heat pumps and sewage treatment plant.

The works had already started with tens of thousands of pounds spent on the project before it halted with an investigation by Durham County Council's planning enforcement team.

The largely retrospective scheme was the ninth planning application for the site near Stockley Lane, Oakenshaw, Crook in seven years.

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Mr Wass had previous approval to convert it to a home, but officers felt his "significant engineering works" needed planning permission as they were "a significant departure from what was reasonably allowed".

Officers recommended refusing the scheme - but councillors on the planning committee went against them.

Senior planning officer George Spurgeon said it went against council policy because it was a "substantial rebuild" and the building did not make a "positive contribution to the character and appearance of the area".

He told councillors: "We're of the view that the building has essentially already been demolished.

"It's essentially a new building in an isolated position within the countryside.

"Whilst there are some benefits to the proposal, on balance we don't feel that these are sufficient to outweigh the fundamental policy conflict."

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Steve Planning from Prism Planning offered a "full and sincere apology for carrying out unauthorised development" on behalf of the applicant, whom he said made a genuine mistake wrongly thinking he already had planning approval, but he suggested the council took a "glass half-empty" approach.

He said: "You could be forgiven for thinking my client did this on a whim. However my client took engineering advice from one of the county's most respected structural engineers."

He said the developer wanted everything done "to the highest standards" for a "wonderfully contemporary structure" which was green, energy-efficient and helped biodiversity.

"Once completed it would look identical to the previously approved plans, except everything will be hidden underground," he added.

"This would be an exemplar project, virtually carbon neutral, costing little to run, benefitting local wildlife and with a low visual impact."

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Ward member Councillor Fraser Tinsley spoke in favour of the plan and urged a "pragmatic approach".

He said: "It's clear there's a significant amount of work and money that's been spent on this.

"It's unfortunate he's got into this position. I think with hindsight he maybe would have approached it in a different way, but we are where we are.

The Northern Echo: Cllr Fraser Tinsley. Picture: Sarah Caldecott.Cllr Fraser Tinsley. Picture: Sarah Caldecott. (Image: Sarah Caldecott, Newsquest)

"I haven't actually received any objections or any contacts from members of the public objecting to this.

"There's actually potential benefits here," he added, noting the basement works would not be visible and would keep vehicles and paraphernalia out of sight, and there would be access to public transport in a rural area.

Debating the proposal, Cllr Patricia Jopling said she would vote against it: "It's extensive work that's been carried out without planning permission.

"It is going to be a totally different building. It opens the floodgates in my view for other applications."

Cllrs Eddy Adam and Louise Fenwick pointed to advantages in sustainability and environmental improvements.

Cllr Maura McKeon said: "It seems as though this is an applicant's misunderstanding and making a mistake.

"We're not talking about a big developer who does this for a living. It's a man with a field.

The Northern Echo: Cllr Maura McKeon. Picture: Northern Echo.Cllr Maura McKeon. Picture: Northern Echo. (Image: Stuart Boulton, Newsquest)

"So I can understand how this has happened, even if it doesn't give me joy."

Cllr Veronica Andrews said: "This is very much a head and heart debate. I think ecologically and environmentally and aesthetically, I'm going to approve it."

Councillors voted 11-1 to approve the scheme against their officer's recommendation.

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